PREVIOUSLY, ON DINNER: The Main Event
All good things must come to an end. In my case, there was some debate as to whether things would end at all on Saturday night, as I had inadvertently stuffed everyone to the point of no return. Feeble protests of 'just a little breather' were heard from various corners of the table, and being a polite hostess I acquiesced, leaving the evening's coup de grace sitting neglected in the kitchen. However, when it became clear that this breather might extend until the next morning, I forced upon my guests the only antidote I trust to swiftly combat overindulgence: copious amounts of brandy and espresso, the first to numb the stomach and the second to jolt the digestive organs back into action (very scientific, I know). Hey, desperate times call for desperate measures. Sure enough, ten minutes later, as if on cue, people were perking up, rubbing their eyes and murmuring that they might actually be able to fit in some dessert. Heaving a silent sigh of relief, I brought out the cake.
Let me tell you a little bit about this cake. I'm not normally drawn to cakes, at least not to American-style spongy frosted cakes, because apart from the frosting things usually tend to taste remarkably similar to nothing. When I make cakes, I tend to make gâteaus or tortes, which have lots of interesting layers of whipped cream, custard and ganache, as well as plenty of fruity, oozy, fudgy, sticky, or crunchy bits that make it a whole lot more exciting to eat. To tempt me into making it, a plain cake has to offer something out of the ordinary. To be honest, I didn't know what to expect from this cake when I picked the recipe out of the book*. I needed an interesting dessert to show off my new lavender, and this seemed like a safe bet, though I wasn't sure how people would react to this nontraditional flavor. At best, I figured, it would be a novelty - something that would cause people to exclaim 'wow, this is interesting', or 'wow, how unusual', but not something that would cause me to sneak out of bed in the middle of the night to have the leftovers all to myself.
How wrong I was. This cake is delicious. Really, really delicious. The lavender is very much there, lending its unmistakable earthy, herbal perfume, but it in no way overpowers the orange and almond - in fact, it seems these three flavors were made for each other, as each lets the others shine through like different voices in a barbershop quartet. They work together, somehow managing to be simultaneously subtle and intense. The cake is citrusy and fresh and nutty and floral; it's also buttery and moist and has the perfect amount of resistance under the fork. You could serve it with whipped cream, ice cream, yogurt or nothing. People did unanimously say 'wow' upon tasting it. It wasn't just any 'wow', however - there was no 'wow, how interesting' or 'wow, how unusual'. It was the ultimate in wows - a simple, plain, crumbs-spilling-out-of-full-mouth, 'WOW!'.
Lavender, Orange and Almond Cake
Source: adapted from Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons
4 teaspoons dried lavender
250g/9oz (1 1/4 cups) sugar
225g/8oz (2 sticks) butter, at room temperature
juice from 2 large oranges
finely-grated zest from 2 large oranges
1 teaspoon almond extract
3/4 teaspoon salt
200g/7oz (1 2/3 cups) flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
50g (1/2 cup) ground almonds
50g (1/2 cup) flaked almonds
30g (1/4 cup) powdered sugar
1 teaspoon dried lavender (optional)
Put the lavender and some of the sugar in a clean coffee grinder (or a food processor) and grind to a powder. Combine this with the rest of the sugar. Cream the lavender sugar and butter together until light and fluffy, then add the orange juice, zest, almond extract and the eggs. Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt, and beat into the wet mixture, along with the ground almonds.
Pour the batter into a 9-inch greased and lined springform pan. Sprinkle the flaked almonds evenly over the top, and sift the powdered sugar over them. Bake in a preheated oven at 350F/180C for 40-50 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool the cake, unmold and sprinkle with the remaining teaspoon of dried lavender.
*Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons, in case you're just joining us.